By Richard Clarke
Arsenal are out of the Champions League.
A dream that had been nurtured and nourished for nine months disappeared within 11 minutes of Tuesday’s Semi-Final second leg at Emirates Stadium.
Already trailing 1-0 from the Old Trafford game, Arsène Wenger’s side needed almost a perfect performance to see off the holders and Premier League champions.
However Kieran Gibbs’ slip allowed Ji-Sung Park to fire home a crucial first goal after just eight minutes then, shortly afterwards, Cristiano Ronaldo’s long-range free-kick beat Manuel Almunia at the near post.
They were the mortal wounds in this particular battle. Ronaldo’s breakaway goal on the hour simply twisted the knife a little further.
Arsenal saved some face with 14 minutes left when Robin van Persie crashed home a penalty after Darren Fletcher hauled down Cesc Fabregas in the area. The Manchester United midfielder received a red card and misses the Final.
But, in reality, it was scant consolation. Wenger’s side had been well-beaten on the night and in the tie overall.
The history books will record this as Arsenal’s second-best Champions League campaign but, on the whistle, it did not feel like it. In fact, this was a bitter, bitter pill to swallow.
However, rest assured, the taste will have subsided by the time next season's competition begins.
In contrast, Emirates Stadium was alive before kick-off. The Club had placed a souvenir flag on every seat and invited fans to wave them as the teams came out.
It made for a magical sight.
At the pre-match press conference both manager Wenger and captain Cesc Fabregas had expressed the desire to have that familiar 12th man on the team-sheet.
Those present seemed happy to take the job on.
As for the other 11, Wenger made two changes from the first leg. Mikael Silvestre had not recovered from the groin injury picked up at Old Trafford so Johan Djourou slotted in alongside Kolo Toure.
Further forward, Van Persie returned from his own groin problem. The Dutchman began on the left-hand side of a five-man midfield with Theo Walcott on the opposite flank and Samir Nasri, Alex Song and Fabregas sandwiched inbetween. Once again, Emmanuel Adebayor was a solitary frontman.
Rio Ferdinand’s rib problem had cleared up sufficiently for him to retain his role at centre back so Manchester United’s only change saw Park replace Carlos Tevez.
On paper, it looked a defensive move by Sir Alex Ferguson but, in fact, it would pan out differently.
Nights like this need stout hearts, teak-tough tenacity and superlative skills - plus a dash of luck of course.
Arsenal nearly got theirs four minutes in but fortune would prove to be fickle shortly afterwards.
Fabregas let fly optimistically from 25 yards. The ball was going well wide of Edwin van der Sar’s right-hand post before deflections off Nemanja Vidic and then Ferdinand saw it trickle wide his left-hand upright with the keeper beaten.
The home side were bright, alive and inquisitive of their opposition – everything you would want in the circumstances.
So Manchester United’s goal – and the manner with which it arrived – was a crushing blow.
In the eighth minute Anderson sent Ronaldo through on the left of the Arsenal area. The Portuguese crossed low to the far post but straight at Gibbs. Unfortunately the full back lost his footing as he was about to collect and he was left floundering as Park pounced to fire the ball home.
It was a cruel on Arsenal but worse was to come.
Before the home side had managed to clear their heads, Manchester United got a second.
Van Persie was adjudged to have fouled Ronaldo 30 yards out and the Manchester United attacker picked himself up to beat Manuel Almunia at his near post with a swerving, dipping free-kick.
A decent start had transformed itself into a nightmare.
Arsenal now needed to score four times in order to go through.
In fairness they tried to lift themselves but, as in the first leg, the visitors were more incisive. Rooney’s curling effort had to be tipped around the post by Almunia at full stretch. From the subsequent corner, Ronaldo headed just wide.
Fabregas and Adebayor nodded over the bar as Arsenal started to muster something going forward. But now the onus was entirely on the home side.
Manchester United knew they would have to commit players forward at some stage. They seemed happy to pick Arsenal apart in the process.
Ronaldo kept the home defence busy with a couple of free-kicks and a snap-shot on the whistle but, at the break, there seemed little way back for Arsenal.
Wenger made change at the start of the second half. Gibbs came off and, as he had at Portsmouth on Saturday, Emmanuel Eboue filled in a left back.
But Emirates Stadium was muted. They needed a spark from their side – or better still a goal.
In fact it was the visitors who came closest in the early stages when Ronaldo cut inside Djourou and forced Almunia into a superb low save at his near post.
Arsenal were now pushing forward and, almost inevitably, Manchester United profited. Rooney led a lightning break before feeding Ronaldo, who gleefully slid home a third.
Although, Van Persie stung the hands of Van der Sar, a raft of substitutions by Ferguson suggested he felt entirely comfortable.
Bendtner did rifle an effort into the sidenetting with 19 minutes left but Park responded with a low drive to the near post that Almunia had to block with urgency.
With 14 minutes left, Arsenal rescued something from the game. Fletcher was adjudged to have fouled Fabregas as he went through on goal. Once referee Robert Rossetti pointed to the penalty spot a red card for the Scotsman was inevitable.
Van Persie thumped the penalty high into the net with palpable anger.
It was the Dutchman’s last contribution to the game. He got a bash on the nose in Arsenal’s next attack and was replaced by Carlos Vela.
With 10 men, Manchester United were never going to come out of their shell. Why should they?
The visitors simply tried to keep their shape. As a result Fabregas fired wide and then nearly converted Bendtner’s flick at the far post.
The final whistle was a relief in some ways. There had been no way back since the early stages.
Much will be made of this defeat. It is bound to be analysed, re-analysed and overanalysed. However nothing will shake Wenger's belief in his side. He is convinced their day will come and, given his track record, it surely will. But, unfortunately, this was clearly not that day.
As a result, Arsenal must look to next season now.
- Gibbs 46
- Walcott 63
- Nasri Yellow Card
- Fabregas (C)
- Adebayor Yellow Card
- Persie 79 Goal!
- Vela 79
- Bendtner 63
- Eboue 46 Yellow Card
- Ferdinand (C)
- Evra 65
- Anderson 63
- Ronaldo Goal! Goal!
- Park Goal!
- Fletcher Red Card
- Rooney 66
- Giggs 63
- Berbatov 66
- Silva 65